2/27/19

Unsheltered Burdened by Preachy Tone


Unsheltered (2018)
By Barbara Kingsolver
Harper, 480 pages.
★★★

Barbara Kingsolver is always worth reading, but she’s not written a truly great novel since Poisonwood Bible (1998). Alas, Unsheltered is not her long-awaited return to literary glory. It’s a good book, but not a great one. Years ago the New Republic slammed her as the mistress of “calamity writing.” That’s harsh, but it’s beyond dispute that Kingsolver seeks to make proverbial Big Statements in Unsheltered.  

On the surface, it’s a simple setup: one badly constructed house, two families separated 140 years in time, and one locale: Vineland, New Jersey. The setting was carefully chosen. Vineland was the brainchild of utopian developer Charles K. Landis (1833-1900). In 1862, Landis began building an alcohol-free town based on progressive educational and political principles. As the name suggests, agriculture was to be the economic driver of the town, especially grape production*. Landis appears in the 1875 part of Kingsolver’s novel, a time by which some residents–including journalist Uri Carruth­–had come to believe Landis’s middle initial stood for “King.”

Landis and Carruth are historical figures, as is Mary Treat (1830-1923), a brilliant entomologist, botanist, and faithful correspondent of Charles Darwin. Most Vineland residents viewed her as eccentric, as women simply weren’t supposed to pursue such things in Gilded Age America. Kingsolver’s main focus, though, is on Treat’s next-door neighbors, the (fictional) Greenwoods. They live in a house that, like the Gilded Age, looks respectable on the outside but is structurally unsound. Thatcher is the poorly paid new science teacher who struggles to keep afloat a household that includes his materialistic wife Rose, her spirited tomboy sister Polly, and their snobbish widowed mother Aurelia. To make matters worse, Thatcher teaches pure science in ways that outrage his Biblical literalist colleague Cutler. Thatcher’s only solace is Mary, who introduces him to the Pine Barrens as a plein air laboratory.

Kingsolver’s chapters alternate between 1875 and 2014 and she’s good at parallelism. Our contemporary center of attention is the Tavoularis clan. Like Thatcher Greenwood, Iano Tavoularis is a struggling academic. He lives in Vineland because the college at which he was tenured went under, and Vineland is a cheaper base from which to commute to Philadelphia for an adjunct’s starvation wages. By the mid-20th century, post-industrial Vineland was no utopia, and it certainly was not one in the wake of Hurricane Sandy (2012). Iano and his wife Willa are ageing former hippies with two adult children: Zeke, who wants to be an investor, and “Tig” (Antigone), a diminutive fireball eco activist who thinks it’s probably too late to save the planet. There is also Nick, Iano’s dying rightwing father, and Zeke’s baby, “Dusty,” whose mother is deceased.

There are other examples of parallelism. The Greenwoods have two dogs, Scylla and Charybdis. I’ll spare you the detour into Greek mythology, but they are the origins of the phrase “between a rock and a hard place.” Antigone’s name is also plucked from myth. The irreconcilable worldviews of Zeke and Tig are analogous to disputes between blind faith versus rational science explored in Thatcher’s Scopes Trial-like tribunal, the sensational trial of Charles Landis, Nick’s talk radio parroting, Willa’s quixotic quest to save her house, Zeke’s belief in money, and Tig’s apocalyptic warnings.

Kingsolver’s novel is well plotted, rich in detail, has well developed characters, and is an imaginative blend of fiction and history, but it's pretty damn obvious in its use of metaphors. The problematic house threatens to unshelter its inhabitants, but will it allow them to “stand in the clear light of day…?” In Kingsolver’s telling, we have the choice to follow convention or truth, unreason or fact, vanity or nature, and those who tell us what we want to hear or scientists. Landis is a metaphor for Donald Trump and in case you don’t get that Mary Treat remarks, “When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore all order.” Still uncertain? A Vineland mob harasses a defender of Darwin with chants of, “Lock him up.”

I am part of the choir to whom Kingsolver is preaching, but will she convince non-believers? Too much of Unsheltered is as subtle as a Facebook rant. Her message that humankind’s house is falling down is advanced through long sections whose didactic tone is similar to that found in Edward Bellamy’s famed Looking Backward (1888). Big chunks of the novel are informative, but the prose is limp.

Kingsolver also presents either/or binaries. Perhaps she's right that the time for nuance is past but then again, maybe she’s ambiguity-challenged. I admire her passion, but she could trust her readers more instead of becoming the scientific scold to Cutler’s evangelicalism or Willa’s idealism. I certainly wouldn’t dispute the view that Planet Earth, like Vineland, has become Paradise Lost. But Kingsolver doesn’t give us much space to dream that we might, in Joni Mitchell’s words, get back to the garden.

Rob Weir  

* Vineland was, for a time, the major supplier for Welch’s Grape Juice.


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